Hope for democracy in the Arab world
They voted in Tunisia today, the country of some 11 million people just northwest of Libya on the Mediterranean Sea, where the so-called “Arab Spring” began early this year.
While people in Libya continue to celebrate the death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, citizens of Tunisia have taken the first small steps toward a real democracy. The polling today was to select representatives to a national assembly that will craft a constitution for the country.
Here’s hoping that Tunisia leads other countries in the Arab world toward a democratic future, just as it did when its people rose up against longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That action sparked uprisings in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was quickly deposed; in Yemen and Syria; where despots cling to power through brutal retaliation of protesters; and in Libya, where rebels took control of the country in August but were unable to rid themselves of Gadhafi’s potential iron fist until Thursday.
We are under no illusion that democracy is an assured thing in that part of the world. As The New York Times put it, Gadhafi’s death has highlighted the many challenges that newly free countries face in the region. They include “the balancing of vengeance against justice, impatience for jobs against the slow pace of economic recovery, fidelity to Islam against tolerance for minorities, and the need for stability against the drive to tear down the pillars of old governments.”
In addition, there is Iran, which is Persian rather than Arab, but is run by Muslim fundamentalists. They and the Hamas group they fund in Palestine are eager to thwart any emerging democratic efforts in the region.
In a number of ways, Tunisia appears better positioned for a successful transition to democracy than other Arab countries. It isn’t divided by ethnic and religious factions, and its revolution was relatively bloodless. Furthermore, it has a substantial middle class that is well-educated and eager to participate in the country’s governance. There is little of the grinding poverty and sense of hopelessness that marks other places in the region, especially Egypt.
Tunisia, of course, isn’t the first country in that region to hold democratic votes. That would be Iraq, which has been voting — and struggling — since 2004, after the invasion by the United States and its allies rid that country of Saddam Hussein.
The jury is still out on whether Iraq can survive as a democracy once U.S. troops are fully removed, which is now projected for the end of this year. Iraq is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines, Iran is working furiously to undermine its efforts and bombings of innocent people occur far too frequently there.
But in Iraq there is still a democratically elected government, with representatives from many different groups and factions, one that seeks to resolve differences without violence.
And throughout the Arab world, where brutal dictators were the rule, not the exception, just a year ago, change has occurred much faster than anyone could have predicted. We sincerely hope it leads to more freedom and democratically elected governments throughout the region.